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It can take five years to bring a new strawberry breed to market, says a man with a Ph.D. in strawberries.

Danica Lo
September 07, 2016

According to the results of a new consumer survey conducted by berry brand Driscoll's, the vast majority of Americans—85 percent!—associate eating berries with happy, good feelings. Seems sort of obvious, right? Berries are simple pleasures: they're sweet, portable, un-fussy to eat. But as it turns out, there's much more to berries than meets the eye. According to Philip Stewart, who holds a Ph.D. in the molecular genetics of flowering in strawberry, the process of bringing a particular breed of berry all the way from the farm to your local supermarket is a lot more complex than we'd ever imagined.

As the head of Driscoll's North American strawberry breeding program, Stewart holds around 24 patents on berry breeds and oversees six breeding programs nationwide. It takes five years of testing a breed before it goes out to growers, and the brand's average strawberry breed has a commercial lifespan of about 3.5 years. "We're constantly replacing things," Stewart tells Food & Wine. "We have new varieties coming in every year."

That's no small feat. For every fruit that makes it into your checkout basket, hundreds of thousands have gone before.

"In the strawberry breeding program, we have 100,000 seedlings a year which are all genetically distinct—every one of them could be a strawberry, potentially," Stewart says. "Those come from crosses between pairs of plants where we've identified traits we like that we would like to see combined."

Those 100,000 distinct seedlings every year are culled down to just a few hundred for tasting—"On a typical day walking seedlings, I might taste 200 to 250," Stewart says. As for the quintessential strawberry flavor, he's looking for a good balance, as well as some surprising aromatics.

"In a way it's a lot like wine," he says. "You've got some basic things like sugar and acid. Obviously, everybody wants their strawberries sweet, that's one thing we see in the survey results, everybody says sweet. But you have to have acid, too. We've found that if you don't have acid, they're really sort of insipid—it's sort of like eating kool-aid. Like wine, you also have all these complex aromatic compounds that are partly perceived as aroma, but also part of the flavor experience. So if I'm looking at the idea strawberry, I'm definitely looking at something sweet with a little acid, and I want complexity in those aromas—I want fruity aromas. There's a particular peachy note that most people don't notice, but once somebody points it out to you that a variety has it or doesn't have it, you notice it a lot better."

As for where the science comes into play? "Strawberry flavor is among the most complex of fruit flavors because of those aromatics," Stewart says. "As the science improves, we're getting a chance to look at it on a chemical level, and start to do the flavor tests and the flavor panels, talking to people about what they like and what they don't like. You can go back and relate that to the chemistry—and from there, you can look at the genetics and say, 'OK, people seem to like compound A. We should breed for more of that.' It's giving us insights we can build into the breeding process."